Carlsbad Caverns National Park // Self-Guided vs Ranger-Guided Tours

In August I saw a gap in my September life schedule, which I used as a good excuse to go on a road trip. I quickly narrowed my destination down to a focus on New Mexico, specifically Carlsbad Caverns National Park. One long day of driving would get me there [about ten hours] and it was close enough to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and White Sands National Monument. This would allow me to add a few more stamps to my National Parks Passport.

While researching the logistics of this trip I realized I would arrive at Carlsbad Caverns NP just in time to participate in the ranger-guided tour of Lower Cave. I purchased my reserved spot online and searched for a nearby place to camp [I settled on Brantley Lake State Park, a good decision!].

My road trip started early on Wednesday morning and involved a LOT of driving, audiobooks and snacks. I arrived at Brantley Lake State Park just before dark, ate dinner and settled in for the night. Thursday morning started bright and early with an alarm that gave me just enough time to whip up breakfast before jumping back on the highway toward Carlsbad Caverns NP. I arrived just before 8am, when the Visitor’s Center opened. Check-in for the ranger-guided tour was easy, all I needed was my park pass and photo ID.

Our tour group met the rangers at the back of the Visitor’s Center where we went over a safety briefing and got geared up. They provided a helmet, headlamp and gloves. Our tour start time was 8:30am and by 9am we were beginning our descent into the Lower Cave via a hand rope and ladders. When we were done descending the ranger asked us all cover our headlamps…it was nearly pitch black, with only a sliver of light peeking in from the entrance far above.

The next two hours were spent walking through the Lower Cave. Throughout the tour we stopped at various formations where the ranger would explain their significance or origins. We learned about caves preserve and tell stories of the past, how each formation is created and how humans have affected the caves in Carlsbad Caverns NP.

I found the human impact to be most interesting. Indirect human actions, such as the paved parking lot, have had long lasting impacts on the cave. When the elevator was first installed they would often leave the entrance/exit doors open. This allowed for airflow, airflow that resulted in unexpected evaporation from an already dry cave. To me, this is so interesting. It is a tangible version of the ripple effect each action has.

We finished the tour at 11:30am, returned our gear and were set free to do as we wanted. The first thing on my agenda was a bathroom break and food. Having been told I could not have either for three hours made both very desirable!

After a lunch of charcuterie-worthy snacks I was ready to get out of the heat and back into the cave. I made a quick stop at the bookstore, within the Visitor’s Center, to get the audio guide device and headed for the Natural Entrance Trail. They did not give very good directions…so for future reference, you need to access the Natural Entrance Trail from inside the Visitor’s Center. There is a door at the back of the building [with an embarrassingly large sign above it] that will give you access to the fenced off Amphitheater and Natural Entrance area. The trail is downhill from the Visitor’s Center to the Big Room.

The Natural Entrance Trail was a lot more interesting than I expected, especially since I had done a more in-depth tour just hours before. As you approach the entrance of the cave the audio tour provides information on how it was discovered and explored. The trail leads you down into the mouth of the cave. At first, all you notice is the stank of sparrow poop [the entrance is home to hundreds of cave sparrows]. The trail continues past the sparrows and before long you’ll become one with the dark cave [there is limited lighting provided, but it is still very dark].

The further into the cave you get the bigger and more dramatic the formations become. Before long you’re in the Big Room. This chamber is incredible. You find yourself gawking around a room large enough to hold four football fields…while still being amazed by the intricate details of a cave formation on the wall next to you. If you only have enough time for one or two hours at Carlsbad Caverns NP you need to make the Big Room part of your trip [you can take the elevator down/up, making it quicker than hiking in].

I spent a solid two hours exploring via the Natural Entrance Trail and the Big Room before I finally decided to venture back into the sunlight. My true motivation to move along with the day was to find a place to sleep for the night. There is no camping within Carlsbad Caverns NP but just down the highway is Road 424, which has BLM dispersed camping. I rolled into a spot I liked, made dinner and forced myself to just chill…for about thirty minutes.

Before I really settled in for the night I needed to make one more stop! Well, three stops. At the last minute I decided to head back into Carlsbad Caverns NP [only about thirty minutes from the BLM dispersed camping] for the Bat Show. Each night, about an hour before sunset, the rangers start the Bat Show. The first half of the show is the ranger talking about bats, how they hunt, how they live and how they were the reason Carlsbad Caverns was discovered. Then the bats start flying…

As soon as the bats start spiraling out of the Natural Entrance of the cave the ranger stops talking and everyone gets really quiet. If you listen closely you can hear the bats whirring out of the cave as they fly off into the sunset. I spent a solid hour watching the bats. You could see them miles off in the distance as they flew off for dinner.

Once it became too dark to see the bats anymore I left the park for the last two stops of the night…gas and ice. Turns out both of those are harder to come by in the desert so plan ahead! My day finally wrapped up around 8pm when I crawled into bed.

When I was planning my trip to Carlsbad Caverns NP I wasn’t sure I wanted to splurge [ahem, a whole $20!] on an in-depth ranger-guided tour. I am SO glad that I did. It made the entire experience in the cave so much more informative and interesting. I would highly recommend scheduling in at least one ranger-guided tour when you visit Carlsbad Caverns NP. I already have a tour on my to-do list for my next visit [The Hall of the White Giant!].

Since I was able to hop into a tour as well as explore the cave on my own I wanted to provide some insight on the pros and cons of each. Below you’ll find more information on Carlsbad Caverns NP and the tours available to you.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, just north of the Texas border. It is the home of 119+ caves, all of which were formed not from running water [like many caves] but from chemical reactions between sulfuric acid and limestone. This has resulted in a very large, complex cave system with a wide range of cave features.

There are two ways to explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park…on your own or with a ranger. If you’ve visited National Parks in the past you may be more familiar with the do-it-yourself style of exploration. I know I am. However, with caves it’s a whole new world and a ranger-guided tour offers something you’ll never be able to experience on your own. Of course, scheduling and availability will have an affect on what sort of exploring you’ll get to do. Here is an in-depth look on the two options you have at Carlsbad Caverns.

Self-Guided Audio Tours

If you’re looking to go at your own pace you’ll want to check out the self-guided audio tours. You will need to stop by the bookstore, inside the Visitor’s Center, to get an audio device [available in multiple languages, $5 per device]. While you can definitely hike the Natural Entrance Trail and explore the Big Room without an audio device I would recommend renting one. While you’re hiking the trails you’ll see numbered plates. Once you type that number into the audio device it will provide in-depth information on a nearby formation, the history of the cave or

With the audio tour you will have the choice to enter the cave via the elevator or via the Natural Entrance. The Natural Entrance will give you a more in-depth experience but you it requires 1.25 miles of walking into the cave via steep, paved path. If you’re up for it, I strongly recommend it.

Once you have hiked down into the cave you’ll enter the Big Room. This is the large cave chamber you’ll be able to walk through for another 1.25 miles. The audio device will give you information on different formations as you go. If you follow the trail all the way around the Big Room [there are shortcut options] you will finish your tour at the elevator that will take you back into the Visitor’s Center.

Total Distance: 2.5 miles
Total Time: 2-3 hours

Pros: You can go at your own pace and can choose how you get into the Big Room [either the Natural Entrance hike or the elevator]. The Big Room is mostly stroller/wheelchair accessible with good signage. You will be able to see well known cave formations and experience the ambiance of a cave. The audio tour device gives you a lot of information while you walk.

Cons: The Big Room barely scratches the surface of what Carlsbad Caverns NP has to offer. You cannot go into any narrow passages and are limited to the developed areas of the Natural Entrance Trail and Big Room.

Ranger-Guided Tours

There are a variety of ranger-guided tours into the caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. If you’re comfortable going underground and navigating along uneven footing with a headlamp as your only light source you’ll be able to find a cave tour for you. Yea, if you want to really get into the caves you’ll need to be comfortable and capable of those things. Keep in mind, if anything happens extrication takes a long time, so don’t bite off more than your comfortable chewing!

That said, you will be exploring with experience cavers who know the caves well. Not only will they be able to help you navigate the terrain they will provide interesting information along the way. I’m terrible at retaining specific facts, but it was still fascinating to hear about how scientists have used caves to draw conclusions about the Earth’s past and make predictions about the future.

Below you’ll find basic information about each of the ranger-guided tours at Carlsbad Caverns NP and a link to get you access to more details and reservations.

Duration: 1.5 hours
Difficulty: moderate
Cost: $8/adult, $4/child
Minimum Age: 4 years old
Tour Size: 40 people
Website: King’s Palace Tour

Duration: 2 hours
Difficulty: moderately difficult
Cost: $7/adult, $3.50/child
Minimum Age: 6 years old
Tour Size: 10 people
Website: Left Hand Tunnel Tour

Duration: 3 hours
Difficulty: moderately difficult
Cost: $20/adult, $10/child
Minimum Age: 12 years old
Tour Size: 12 people
Website: Lower Cave Tour

Duration: 4 hours
Difficulty: difficult
Cost: $20/adult, $10/child
Minimum Age: 12 years old
Tour Size: 8 people
Website: Hall of the White Giant

Duration: 4 hours
Difficulty: difficult
Cost: $20/adult, $10/child
Minimum Age: 12 years old
Tour Size: 8 people
Website: Spider Cave Tour

Duration: 5.5 hours
Difficulty: moderately difficult
Cost: $15/adult, $7.50/child
Minimum Age: 8 years old
Tour Size: 16 people
Website: Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour

In a perfect world we would all have the time and resources to experience through each tour. For when that isn’t possible, I would strongly recommend squeezing in at least one ranger-guided tour so you can explore more of the cave. I loved the Lower Cave tour and the have Hall of the White Giant tour on my to-do list, but any ranger-guided tour you can fit into your itinerary or budget would be worth it.

Of course, if all the tours are booked up or if they just don’t fit into your schedule you do have the option to explore with an audio tour guide. If you’re able, I would definitely recommend taking the Natural Entrance Trail down into the Big Room for a big picture experience. Even if you do take a ranger-guided tour the Natural Entrance Trail and Big Room are worth exploring on your own.

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